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Katrina: A criminal catastrophe
FEMA subcontracted evacuation buses, ignored bus-owners' group's offers of help

by Andrew Martin and Andrew Zajac, Chicago Tribune

Sept. 23, 2005

Two days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, as images of devastation along the Gulf Coast and despair in New Orleans flickered across television screens, the head of one of the nation's largest bus associations repeatedly called federal disaster officials to offer help.

Peter Pantuso of the American Bus Association said he spent much of the day on Wednesday, Aug. 31, trying to find someone at the Federal Emergency Management Agency who could tell him how many buses were needed for an evacuation, where they should be sent and who was overseeing the effort.

"We never talked directly to FEMA or got a call back from them," Pantuso said.

Pantuso, whose members include some of the nation's largest motor coach companies, including Greyhound and Coach USA, eventually learned that the job of extracting tens of thousands of residents from flooded New Orleans wasn't being handled by FEMA at all.

Instead the agency had farmed the work out to a trucking logistics firm, Landstar Express America, which in turned hired a limousine company, which in turn engaged a travel management company.

Over the next four days, those companies and a collection of Louisiana officials cobbled together a fleet of at least 1,100 buses that belatedly descended on New Orleans to evacuate residents waiting amid the squalor and mayhem of the Superdome and the city's convention center.

The story of the bus evacuation of New Orleans is partly one of heroism by a handful of people who, when called upon to help, acted quickly and improvised deftly in the face of desperate need.

But the story also underscores a critical failure in the disaster plan: the inability of government to provide even the most rudimentary transportation to take people out of harm's way.

The day before the storm hit on Aug. 29, the city of New Orleans had ordered its residents to flee but had not made provisions for upwards of 100,000 residents too old, too poor or otherwise unable or unwilling to leave.

Mayor C. Ray Nagin has acknowledged in TV interviews that the city had hundreds of transit and school buses available to at least begin an evacuation ahead of Katrina's arrival but couldn't find enough drivers willing to chance getting caught in the huge storm.

When Katrina's storm surges breached the city's levees, putting much of the city under water, it was up to state officials and FEMA to oversee a gigantic evacuation.

But they, too, were caught unprepared.

Though it was well-known that New Orleans, much of it below sea level, would flood in a major hurricane, Landstar, the Jacksonville company that held a federal contract that at the time was worth up to $100 million annually for disaster transportation, did not ask its subcontractor, Carey Limousine, to order buses until the early hours of Aug. 30, roughly 18 hours after the storm hit, according to Sally Snead, a Carey senior vice president who headed the bus roundup.

Landstar made inquiries about the availability of buses on Sunday, Aug. 28, and earlier Monday, but placed no orders, Snead said.

She said Landstar turned to her company for buses Sunday after learning from Carey's Internet site that it had a meetings and events division that touted its ability to move large groups of people. "They really found us on the Web site," Snead said.

A Landstar spokeswoman declined comment on how the company responded to the hurricane.

Messages left for a FEMA spokeswoman were not returned.

Snead said she tapped Transportation Management Services of Vienna, Va., which specializes in arranging buses for conventions and other large events, to help fill an initial order for 300 coaches.

"It's like taking your phone book and dividing it in half and saying, 'You take half and I'll take half,' " Snead said.

Unbeknownst to them, two key players who could reach the owners of an estimated 70 percent of the nation's 35,000 charter and tour buses had contacted FEMA seeking to supply motor coaches to the evacuation effort.

On the day the hurricane made landfall, Victor Parra, president of the United Motorcoach Association, called FEMA's Washington office "to let them know our members could help out."

Parra said FEMA responded the next day, referring him to an agency Web page labeled "Doing Business with FEMA" but containing no information on the hurricane relief effort.

On Wednesday, Aug. 31, Pantuso of the American Bus Association cut short a vacation thinking his members surely would be needed in evacuation efforts.

Unable to contact FEMA directly, Pantuso, through contacts on Capitol Hill, learned of Carey International's role and called Snead.

Pantuso said Snead told him she meant to call earlier but didn't have a phone number.

Finally, sometime after 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Pantuso and Parra had enough information to send an SOS to their members to help in the evacuation.

By the weekend, more than 1,000 buses were committed to ferrying stranded New Orleans residents to shelters in Houston and other cities.

In a regulatory filing last week, Landstar Express said it now has received government orders worth at least $125 million for Katrina-related work. It's not known how much of that total pertains to the bus evacuation.

Landstar Express is a subsidiary of Landstar System, a $2 billion company whose board chairman, Jeff Crowe, also was chairman of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, one of the nation's premier business lobbies, from June 2003 until May 2004.

Pantuso said changes for the better may be afoot, perhaps even in time to improve the response to Hurricane Rita, now bearing down on the Texas Gulf Coast near the Louisiana border.

"I have been getting a tremendous amount of follow-up from Landstar over the last two days ... looking for ways to work together in the future," Pantuso said Thursday, adding that he feels "much better about ... our opportunities to work in a more coordinated fashion."

Whatever happens likely will be good for Landstar's bottom line.

Landstar's regulatory filing also said that because of Hurricane Katrina, the maximum annual value of its government contract for disaster relief services has been increased to $400 million.

As originally published

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There's much more than this at Unknown News.

Filed under:
Katrina: A criminal catastrophe
The drowning of New Orleans and the federal government's bizarre response

Aug. 29, 2005:
As Katrina strikes, FEMA urges first-responders not to respond

Sept. 2, 2005:
Who is this incompetent doofus running FEMA?
by Rachel R., Unknown News

Sept. 2, 2005:
Emergency crews turned back by FEMA:
They lacked "the required paperwork"

Sept. 2, 2005:
FEMA won't allow airboats to rescue Katrina victims

Sept. 2, 2005:
Troops sent to New Orleans for "combat operation"
with comments by Rebecca and Helen & Harry Highwater

Sept. 3, 2005:
FEMA chief had to be 'asked to resign' from previous job with horse club

Sept. 3, 2005:
FEMA turned back 500-boat rescue flotilla

Sept. 3, 2005:
Bush declares "zero tolerance" for New Orleans
survivors seeking food and water

Sept. 3, 2005:
Thousands of New Orleans refugees held at gunpoint,
not allowed to leave growing hell of Superdome

with comments by Helen & Harry Highwater

Sept. 3, 2005:
Homeland Security stops Red Cross from bringing food for New Orleans
with comments by Sir J and Helen & Harry Highwater

Sept. 3, 2005:
Police official says Nat'l Guardsmen 'played cards' amid New Orleans chaos

Sept. 4, 2005:
Red tape keeps hundreds of doctors from helping hurricane survivors

Sept. 4, 2005:
Homeland Security Chief says New Orleans disaster couldn't have been predicted
with comments by Helen & Harry Highwater

Sept. 4, 2005:
College sophomores used fake press passes to circumvent FEMA's rescue roadblocks
with comments by Helen & Harry Highwater

Sept. 4, 2005:
Navy hospital & water purification ship anchored on nearby coast, underused

Sept. 4, 2005:
FEMA turns down water, fuel for New Orleans, cuts area's emergency communication line

Sept. 5, 2005:
FEMA "dragging its feet" as businesses try to help hurricane, flood victims

Sept. 5, 2005:
Firefighters waited five days for FEMA's OK to enter New Orleans, then gave up, returned to Houston

Sept. 6, 2005:
Now is the time for pointing fingers
by John M., Unknown News

Sept. 6, 2005:
No food drops planned for New Orleans
with comments by Helen & Harry Highwater

Sept. 6, 2005:
U.S. military smuggled white vacationers out of New Orleans Superdome squalor
with comments by Helen & Harry Highwater

Sept. 6, 2005:
As New Orleans waits, FEMA sends firefighters to seminar, assigns them to hand out fliers

Sept. 6, 2005:
New Orleans during the disaster:
Police lied to survivors, blocked escape from city

by Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Slonsky, EMS Network
From inside New Orleans as the crisis worsened, these survivors found that the authorities were never any help, and often an ugly enemy.   =H&HH= | LINK
Sept. 6, 2005:
FEMA head specifically ordered lackadaisical response to "near catastrophic" Hurricane Katrina

Sept. 7, 2005:
International offers of help came immediately, but U.S. approval was delayed by days

Sept. 7, 2005:
FEMA's top-level management stacked with Bush's cronies
with comments by Helen & Harry Highwater

Sept. 7, 2005:
Navy pilots reprimanded for rescuing huricane victims

Sept. 8, 2005:
FEMA contractors arrested for looting
with comments by Underground Panther in the Sky

Sept. 8, 2005:
Katrina survivors "evacuated" at the point of a gun
with comments by Helen & Harry Highwater

Sept. 8, 2005:
Canadian search-and-rescue team first to reach New Orleans suburb

Sept. 9, 2005:
"Mission accomplished" in New Orleans
by Harry Highwater, Unknown News

Sept. 9, 2005:
Homeowners' guns confiscated in New Orleans, police threaten evacuation by force
with comments by Sir J and Helen & Harry Highwater

Sept. 10, 2005:
FEMA sent back German plane carrying fifteen tons of food for hurricane victims

Sept. 11, 2005:
"Area's power restoration was set back days"
In devastated Mississippi town, Cheney made restoring oil pipeline's pumping power "a presidential directive"

with comments by Helen & Harry Highwater

Sept. 11, 2005:
New Orleans doctors had to kill their patients

Sept. 11, 2005:
Sheriff threatens to arrest FEMA officials
Countermands FEMA order that stores remain closed

Sept. 11, 2005:
Bush signs executive order lowering wages across Katrina-devastated areas
with comments by Helen & Harry Highwater

Sept. 12, 2005:
Drug Enforcement Agency plays key role in door-to-door searches of New Orleans homes
with comments by Helen & Harry Highwater

Sept. 12, 2005:
Racist police blocked bridge and forced evacuees back at gunpoint
with comments by Chris M. and Helen & Harry Highwater

Sept. 13, 2005:
Chertoff delayed federal response to Katrina disaster, memo shows

Sept. 13, 2005:
As bodies are recovered, reporters are threatened: 'No photos, no stories'

Sept. 14, 2005:
Feds delayed Nat'l Guard's hurricane response for days

Sept. 16, 2005:
Truckloads of ice for Katrina victims trucked everywhere except to victims

Sept. 16, 2005:
Mayor of Gretna says “whole community” backs bridge-blocking racist police
with comments by Helen & Harry Highwater

Sept. 16, 2005:
Doctor says FEMA ordered him to stop treating hurricane victims

Sept. 19, 2005:
Bush OKs racial, other discrimination in rebuilding of shattered Gulf Coast
with comments by Helen & Harry Highwater

Sept. 20, 2005:
New Orleans homes searched by "task force" after residents have been evacuated
with comments by Bruce, Rebecca, and Helen & Harry Highwater

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